Denarration and the Persistence of Memory


I am remembering now (as I remembered then) in order to make sense out
of the chaos of that misguided creation of ours.

-Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

[deletia]

It stands for everything that's been lost.

Douglas Coupland, Microserfs: 190

The ease with which obliteration can be obtained in the Coupland "multiverse"
stems primarily from the asynchronous balance between the "persistence
of memory" and an unsustainable reality moving so fast it's standing
still. For Coupland, the bodiless nature of memories serve as a human
sensorium, preserving those fragments of the past which, according to
Merleau Ponty, act as a "tributary to the very meaning of the present"
(19). However, in a present where information expansion begets temporal
shrinkage, once-familiar concepts such as history ironically become time-expired.
The protracted time of centuries replaces itself with the contracted argot
of "decadism" and "generations." Thus, the sense of
anyone having pre-electronic memories becomes quaint if not irrelevant
in itself. For the umbilical link between consciousness and the past is
what preserves the internal dialogue necessary to sustain the narrative
architecture of our own microstories, without which we are, in effect,
collectively unconscious.

This sense of personal storylessness, endemic to the "cultural logic
of late capitalism" (Jameson) is best rendered in Coupland's fictionalized
diary, Microserfs, which emphasizes how

at the micro level we are all slaves to the information that bombards
us.

[New Statesman and Society]

Despite what the title may impute, Coupland's account of

the first Microsoft generation - the first group of people who have never
known a world without a MS-DOS environment,

[Microserfs: 16]

lacks the normally associated angst of earlier apocalyptic texts such
as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. For Bradbury, as a writer in
the McCarthy era, the concept of "non-combustible data" replacing
the printed word and mediating corporeal action was extraneous to a mindset
already beset by the more palpable terror of Cold War politics. Yet for
Coupland, the chimerical future once envisioned by Bradbury has moved
beyond apocrypha. We now inhabit and continue the ranks of its phyla which
appears less abstruse in the light of the present. After all:

Nature always prepares her babies for what they'll need.

[Coupland, Shampoo Planet: 77]

Yet what price do we pay for out ability to cope with the future?

Coupland negotiates this matter in the appropriate setting of Silicon
Valley - virtual hard-drive of the Microsoft empire where Gates is God
and serfdom still exists. As previously discussed, the onus on seeming
seamless in a technocratic society is what ultimately renders its invisibility.
The absence of presence, the "consensual denial of randomness and
chaos" (Polaroids from the Dead: 162) and the "collective
decision to disfavor a Godhead" (Microserfs: 101) all serve
to undercut the very utopia which it seeks to sustain. What Coupland eschews
is not technology itself, but rather those existential inclinations which
accompany it

The price we thus pay for the ability to cope with the future is an equivalent
inability to envision an afterworld. Having erased such "meta-narratives"
as religion from our social palimpsest:

the construction of hardware and software is where the species is investing
its very survival.

[Microserfs: 60]

We may note achieve transcendence through computation but we will keep
ourselves out of the gutter with them,

[Ibid.]

states Karla, a coding aficionado. In the Silicon "simulacrum":

[this] freedom, to quite literally, line-by-line, prevent humanity
from going non-linear

[Ibid.]

is invested in what Baudrillard perceives as:

the compulsive repetition of codes.

["On Nihilism"]

However, although coding establishes itself as an arbiter of identity,
it fails to reconnect one with reality, being itself an agent of the 'hyperreal'.
Rather, it serves to create the collective (un)consciousness germane to
monocultural computer conglomerates.

They're like Borgs,

states Susan, one of the Microsoft defectors who dates a "cog"
from Intel,

They have one mind. They're like this sci-fi movie I once saw where
if one child in a village learned something, all the other children learned
it simultaneously. It's a hive mind. You get the feeling there's a sub-audible
tape playing that says, resistance is futile...you will assimilate...

[ibid: 136]

Paradoxically, using coding as a survival technique is in fact one which
self-consumes rather than self-perpetuates. Instead of extending our consciousness
backwards to the past wherein lies our ontological roots, the mistake
we make is in projecting it forward in the proleptic hope of an 'entity'
which can furnish our deepest needs:

Perhaps the entity is what people without any visions of the afterworld
secretly yearn to build,

ponders Dan, Coupland's "intense receiver":

- an intelligence that will supply them with specific details - supply
pictures. [Ibid: 35]

Whilst anticipating a situation whereby automated intelligence can reintegrate
an overarching logos into our collective microstories, the Microsoft
coterie establish a proxy grand narrative ... "the cult of Bill."
The physical absence of Bill, founder and corporate icon of Microsoft,
manifests an almost metaphysical presence within the company. Like Gibson's
Neuromancer, the "Gospel according to Gates" (Roger Perkins),
provides the narrative anodyne to assuage the anomie of Coupland's "cogs."

Maybe we like to believe that Bill knows what the entity will be,

Dan wonders,

He makes us feel as if there's a moral force holding the reins of technological
progress. Maybe he does know. But maybe Bill simply provides a focus for
the company where no other focus can be found. I mean if it weren't for
Bill, this place would be deadsville - like a great big office supply
company. Which is sort of what it is. I mean, if you really think about
it.

[Microserfs: 35]

Interiorizing the Bill Myth rehabilitates meaning into an otherwise spiritually
depthless existence of:

work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep. [Ibid: 4]

year in year out in the pursuit of code in the pursuit of somebody else's
abstraction. [Ibid: 90]

Nevertheless, like most "do-it-yourself grand narratives" (Brooker:
146), the cult of Bill and the compulsion to code both function as acculturation
mechanisms, instrumental in the "corporate invasion of private memory"
(Microserfs: 177). However, it is only by enculturating
technology that the fragments of the "petits récits"
may be reified once more into our personal memory banks. Coupland, in
this way, aligns Ong's theory of the "externalization of subjective
memory" (Orality and Literacy: 135; Microserfs: 359)
with the "storage and retrieval power' (ibid: 359) of the ubiquitous
computer. By interfacing computer memory with subjective memory, Coupland
suggests that we can preserve consciousness, indeed create the narrative
past necessary to sustain personal relevance.

The proclivity to up-date oneself stems essentially from the fear of
"non-being":

All these little fears, fears of not producing enough...fear of losing
the sensation of actually making something anymore...fear the bottom line
is the only thing that really drives the process; fear of disposability...

is therefore what engages characters like Dan in "Power-booking"
- the creation of subconscious files. By establishing a back-up file of
personal memories, one's "have-a-life" factor (ibid: 12) is
thereby sustained and consequently relocated within a narrative ambit.
Likewise, the hypertextual netscape of e-mail provides a "loser backup
system" (ibid: 321) where:

what you read...depends on how much of a life you have,

Dan informs us. Thus,

the less of a life, the more mail you read. [Ibid: 22]

Having hereinbefore alluded to Baudrillard's theories of the "hyperreal"
and the simulated construction of the postmodern condition, it is thereupon
necessary to refer
to the "ecstasy of communication" and its ironic relationship
with "denarration":

You never heard of people 'not having lives' until about five years
ago, just when all the 80's technologies really penetrated our lives

remarks Coupland (ibid: 164). The irony of this statement is two-fold.
The globalization of the information marketplace responsible for vilifying
the "grand narrative" invariably creates the need to recede
into the "Information Dark Ages, before 1976" (ibid: 164) where
interpersonal narratives had not yet "become an obsolete indulgence"
(Polaroids from the Dead: 180). Yet how viable an option is nostalgia,
which is symptomatic, according to Jameson, of a society "that has
become incapable of dealing with time and history" (The Anti-Aesthetic:
177)? It would seem that "buying into an untenable 1950's narrative
of what 'life' is supposed to be can only lead to useless and uncreative
expenditure of energy" (Polaroids from the Dead: 182). In
this respect, Coupland's serfs make an idiomatic institution out of "not
having a life" by voluntarily "denarrating" themselves.

For it is only,

as David Harvey attests

by screening out the complex stimuli that stemmed from the modern rush
of life that we could tolerate its extremes. (26)

Thus in an environment where:

post machines [are] making countless millions of people obsolete overnight
[Microserfs: 137]

then
the only possible recourse is to become part of the vacuum.

[Polaroids from the Dead: 197]

The urban vacuum of Coupland's compuculture in this respect resembles
that of Carl Schoske's Fin de siècle Vienna (1981), where
the (meta)physical confusion which arises from a "fast-moving world
of time and motion" (ibid: 85) necessitates a new governing truism.
Furthermore, the image of the machine, as Otto Wagner admits, becomes
the "ultimate form of efficient rationality". (The Condition
of Postmodernity
: 62). Correlatively, the narrative space of Microserfdom
becomes post-human, eliminating one-to-one personal contact and enabling
us to create a new self-imposed identity behind the safety of a screen.

Identity. I go by the Tootsie theory,

quips Dan,

that if you concoct a convincing on-line meta-personality on the Net,
then that personality really IS you. With so few things around nowadays
to loan a person identity, the palette of identities you create for yourself
in the vacuum of the Net - your menu of alternative "you's"
- actually IS you. Or an isotope of you. Or a photocopy of you.

[Microserfs: 327]

The question one therefore needs to pose is how and to what
extent can the "meta-self" be said to replace the "meta-narrative"
as an arbiter of identity? Consider the metaphor of Newrath's ship:

Is the ship still the same craft if during a voyage all its planks are
gradually replaced by new ones?

[Narrative and the Self: 37]

Inasmuch as we are all "versions" of our own stories, it seems
safe to say that the self:

is essentially a being of reflexivity coming into itself in its own
narrational acts.

[ibid:41]

Equally, the meta-narrative such as history, for example:

has been revealed as a fluid intellectual construct, susceptible to
revisionism, in which a set of individuals with access to a large database
dominates another set with less access.

[Microserfs: 252-3]

Moreover, Coupland seems to infer that the persistence of
memory necessary to sustain the narrative architecture of out collective
microstories can be preserved by peripheralizing our essence through computers:

Given this new situation, the presumption of the existence of the notion
of "history" becomes not necessarily dead but somewhat beside
the point
. Access to memory replaced historical knowledge as a way
for our species to process its past (my italics). Memory has replaced
history - and this is not bad news. On the contrary, it's excellent news
because it means we're no longer doomed to repeat our own mistakes; we
can edit ourselves as we go along, like an on-screen document.

[Ibid: 252]

By virtue of the copy-and-paste ability of computer memory, the preservation
of the past is secure, as is the emplotment of our own personal narratives
within a logarithmically expanding new order. However, while endorsing
Benjamin's thesis which states that:

paradoxically, in order for a society to free itself to move in a more
utopian direction, the fundamental inescapability of the aggrieved past
must be vigilantly acknowledged,

[Mc Nulty: 95]

Coupland, like Kushner, deviates from its historical materialism. The
narrative direction taken in "Part Two: Perestroika" of Kushner's
Angels in America resembles that taken by Coupland in concluding
Microserfs; that is, an attempt to rescue structural epistemologies.
Hence, in proffering memory over history as the more tenable albeit "do-it-yourself
grand narrative" (Brooker, 146), he must

somehow move the narrative along into the future while keeping history
ever in sight, he must, in other words, find the [narrative] equivalent
of Klee's Angelus Novus, and brings us either to the threshold
of a fresh catastrophe or to a utopia that throws into relief the suffering
of the past.

[Mc Nulty: 91]

Perhaps our ability to deal with the future has divested us of
an organic "grand-narrative', whether that be an historical or religious
sensibility. Be that as it may, Coupland suggests that technology, when
engaged in humanistic ends can actually bridge the gap between
time and timelessness, the material and the immaterial, the "meat-narrative'
and the "meta-self" to reconnect us with our own terrestrial
utopia.

For sometimes we all forget that the world itself is paradise, and there
has been much of late to encourage that amnesia.

[Microserfs: 366]

Consider the case of Dan's mother, whom, being paralyzed, has had her
personal "password" deleted - occluding the possibility of her
"self" existing within a narrative continuum. It is only in
facilitating her with a special computer keypad that the encryption of
the human subconscious may be decoded:

On the screen in 36-point Helvetica, on the screen of a MacClassic were
written the words:

i am here

...and at the centre of it all was Mom, part woman/part-machine, emanating
blue Macintosh ™ light.

[ibid: 369]

Renarrating oneself through the semaphoric language of computation is
thus, ultimately, a means of creating a parity between "secondary"
and "primary" orality. By realigning "post-typographic
electronics" (Ong: 134), with our primary oral origins, we engender
what he refers to as an "evolution of consciousness" (75). That
is to say, the "presence of the word" which colligates both
past and future to present perceptions is essentially what grounds and
determines us as a species. Therefore, by occupying "this intersection
between lived time and timeless order (Michael Bell: 173) the ability
to re-establish oneself within a narrative or spatio-temporal framework
becomes tenable. Oral expression, as contended by Ong, in being

a matrix from which all communication proceeds

[Hudson: 14]

is both subject to time and narrative treatment. In this
respect:

the elemental way to process human experience verbally is to give an
account of it more or less as it really comes into being and exists, embedded
in the flow of time. Developing a storyline is a way of dealing with this
flow. [Ong: 140]

Hence, the fictional buffer of the "meat-personalities" and
Net pseudonyms used by Coupland's serfs function in a similar way
to that of storytelling inasmuch as the teller is distanced from the tale.
Likewise, the emplotment of human experience within a fictional composition
facilitates a type of postmodern anagnorisis, or psychotherapy, whereby
the process of denarration is reversed. Thus, in filtering the past into
the narrative continuum of the present, Coupland's characters help reinstate
their lost "selves" within the plane of self-understanding.

Primary Sources:

Coupland, Douglas. Microserfs. London: Flamingo, 1995, 1996.
pp. 22, 35, 60, 90, 101, 136-7, 164, 177, 190, 235, 242, 252-3, 321, 327,
359, 366-9.

Coupland, Douglas. Polaroids from the Dead. London: Flamingo,
1996. pp. 1, 23, 34, 57-63, 108, 112, 156, 162, 169, 179-80, 182, 186,
189, 197.

Secondary Sources:

Baudrillard, Jean. "On Nihilism". n.d.

Bell, Michael. "How Primordial is Narrative?", in Narrative
in Culture: The Uses of Storytelling in the Sciences, Philosophy and Literature
.
ed. Nash, Christopher. London, New York: Routledge, 1990. P. 173.

Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in
Illuminations. Ed and intro., Arendt, Hannah. Trans. Harry Zohn.
New York: Schoken, 1969, 253-64.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Great Britain: Flamingo Press,
n.d.

Brooker, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984 pp.3, 146.

Coupland, Douglas. Shampoo Planet. USA: Pocket Books, Simon and
Schuster Inc., 1992; Great Britain: Touchstone, Simon and Schuster Ltd.,
1992. p. 77.

Gibson, Williams. Neuromancer. Great Britain: Grafton Books,
1996.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: an Enquiry into the
Origins of Cultural Change
. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 9, 26,
62.

Hudson, Patrick H. History as an Art of Memory. Hanover and London:
New England U.P., 1993, pp. 14, 15.

Jameson, Frederic. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." The
Anti-Aesthetic
. Foster, Hal ed. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983,
p.117.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism
. London: Verso, 1991.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: a gay fantasia on national themes;
Part One: Millennium Approaches; Part Two: Perestroika
. London: National
Royal Theatre: N. Hearn Books 1985, 1992.

Mc Nulty, Charles. "Angels in America: Tony Kushner's Theses on
the Philosophy of History" pp. 86, 91, 95.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
London, New York: Routledge, 1982, pp. 75, 134, 135, 140.

Perkins, Roger. "Sunday Telegraph" taken from Microserfs.
Coupland, Douglas. London: Flamingo, 1995.

Ponty, Merleau. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Sruth,
Colin. London; Humanities Press, 1978, p.19.

Schoske, Carl. Fin-de-siècle Vienna 1981. P.85. taken
from Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: an Enquiry into
the Origins of Cultural Change
. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 9,
26, 62.

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